June 13, 2019
Decongesting Metro Manila has been a key part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy since the very beginning of his campaign for the presidency. On Monday, as the President’s official family discussed earthquake readiness, the Cabinet Cluster on Climate Change Adaptation, Mitigation and Disaster Risk Reduction recommended finding ways to start the process.
One of the suggested measures is to offer incentives to businesses to locate outside the National Capital Region (NCR). What is needed now is for the discussion to shift to concrete action.
There is no question that there would be many advantages to decongesting the Metro. The NCR is the eighth most populated metropolitan area in the world, and it is not surprising to read that Manila is the planet’s most densely populated city. About a third of the Metro’s residents live in dangerously substandard housing. The city suffers from serious air and water pollution, as well as traffic congestion that costs the country’s economy an estimated $2 billion of lost revenue a day.
The government at every level struggles to maintain basic public services. And because so much of the economy is concentrated in the Metro area, a calamity such as a typhoon — which happens with some regularity — has an outsized effect on the country.
Meanwhile, many areas outside the capital are neglected; jobs and economic opportunities are few, and so development is handicapped. People looking for better opportunities flock to Metro Manila, which only puts further pressure on urban resources, and diverts even more attention from the outlying provinces.
For sure the President, the business community and economic policymakers understand this, and even most of the general public can articulate the problem. Yet, awareness has so far not led to productive action.
Some “decongestion” in the form of development outside Metro Manila has begun, but for the most part, it is concentrated in a few areas — the area surrounding Clark in Pampanga, for example, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao. These developments are hardly helping to reduce the strain on Metro Manila, while at the same time are beginning to create many of the same problems in different areas.
In order to determine the best way to encourage businesses and working families to settle in other areas of the country, the government should consider what the metropolis offers that other locations do not. These things, of course, differ depending on the needs of businesses and lifestyles, but there are a few common factors.
Infrastructure is a key concern; neither businesses nor households can prosper without efficient energy, transportation and communications links with the rest of the country. Ease of doing business is another critical factor; services such as banks and government agencies must be efficient and close at hand. Finally, alternative areas must offer adequate markets from both the business and consumer points of view. Markets always improve as businesses and family incomes grow, but the government should help to start that process.
The bottom line is that in order to decongest Metro Manila, the focus must not be on the city, but precisely where President Duterte has always said it should be: on the rest of the country.
Only by making provincial locations legitimately competitive from both the business and consumer perspectives can any “decongestion” policy succeed. If the government embraces this idea, efforts are almost guaranteed to be successful.
And that may yet be the best, most tangible sign of economic progress the nation could show for its sovereign existence as it matures further beyond its 121 years of independence as a republic.
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